Today was blizzard white outside in the Berkshires, individual snowflakes swirling in front and around so fast that you couldn't see each of them, individually, as they created their own mass, indistinguishable, and in that moment, walking through the blur of snow it struck me that this is how my children, who are both on the autism spectrum, see. In his essay, "A Question of Identity", James Baldwin noted that, "...it is impossible, after all, to be friends with a mob: they are simply a cloud of faces, bearing witness to romance."
My children have had a hard time "reading" emotions, both of them needed to be trained, by use of pictures, and flashcards, and reinforcements, to recognize happiness in others, or sadness, or anger. The science behind why that is is still being researched, and there is much that science cannot explain about the why's of autism (something that most parents, including me, find extremely frustrating). I am not a scientist, but an artist, and a parent, and there are times when art can try to answer the questions science cannot.
When my son looks at my face, I believe he sees it much like the train he created at the age of four, by using similar shapes, layered together, to create a shape that is loved and familiar. Most of the shapes in his train are similarly sized rectangles and triangles with straight edges, arranged in patterns to suggest the image of a train moving uphill, carrying cars behind it. The shapes themselves only make sense when seen as an entirety: individually, they are just triangles and rectangles, devoid of much significance or meaning.
When my son looks at me he sees "Mommy". It has taken more drills, and pointing, and flashcards for him to recognize and label "nose", "lips", "ears", "eyes". To then take these individual parts - "nose", "lips", "ears" and "eyes" - and see the individual, subtle changes each of these parts goes through when experiencing happiness, or sadness, or anger, is something that I believe is extremely hard for him to do. Much like walking through the blizzard this morning, or like Baldwin's description of the crowd as a "cloud of faces", emotions are blurred for him, I believe, in the context of the whole, the face, familiar, and loved, and therefore overwhelming, so much so that the fine reading of emotions is lost in its vastness.
On today, World Autism Day, I'd like folks to think about children like my son, adults like the man my son will be, so innately capable, understood if you invest the time, and the effort and resources, to do so. So, in support, wear blue, light blue, and when you see that puzzle piece on someone's car know that you are that piece of the puzzle, as is my son, as are we all, as we look and listen, support and understand, each finding our unique, individual place in the shifting artwork of the society we are constantly building.